SOUTH PORTLAND — Somalia was on the verge of civil war when Deqa Dhalac fled the capital city of Mogadishu 31 years ago and began her journey to become the first Somali-American mayor in the United States.
On Monday afternoon she was formally seated as the top elected leader of Maine’s fourth-largest city. Her latest accomplishment was the subject of a joyous phone conversation on Sunday with her mother, who still lives in Mogadishu.
Her mom recalled the prayer she recited to Dhalac when her daughter began high school. From now through eternity, her mother said at the time, be a leader in a community of people from all backgrounds, and may the light of your father guide you to a better future. Dhalac had forgotten her mother’s prescriptive words. She was happy to be reminded.
“It was so beautiful,” Dhalac said before Monday’s ceremony. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
After serving three years as District 5 city councilor, Dhalac was formally elected Monday afternoon by her six fellow councilors to lead them and the city in 2022.
Abdullahi Ahmed, principal of Deering High School in Portland and a leader of Maine’s Somali community, delivered the opening prayer at the council’s inauguration ceremony. He congratulated Dhalac for demonstrating, despite setbacks that come with prejudice, what the human spirit can accomplish with support from a welcoming city.
“You are here to build on the work that was ongoing,” Ahmed said. “We are so proud of you, Deqa.”
Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, was among many leaders of Maine’s immigrant community who attended the ceremony at South Portland High School. He is a Kurd who was born in Iran.
“All of us new Mainers take personal pride in this,” Jalali said as he arrived.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, praised Dhalac’s election “as a sign of the increasing civic involvement of the American Muslim community,” spokesperson Ibrahim Hooper said. “We hope Mayor Dhalac will help inspire a new generation of American Muslims as they take an increasing role in building a better society.”
In becoming mayor, Dhalac takes on the additional duties of running council meetings and spearheading citywide initiatives for the same $3,000 annual stipend that each councilor receives. A longtime social justice and human rights advocate, she works for the Maine Department of Education as its family engagement and cultural responsiveness specialist.
Dhalac, 53, has traveled through many countries and navigated a wide variety of cultures, jobs and challenges to get where she is today.
She grew up in a middle-class family, a middle child with two brothers. Her father was a former petroleum engineer who lost his job because he was a vocal supporter of Somalia’s fight for independence from colonial rule in the 1960s. He became an independent contractor who worked with nongovernmental agencies and made education a priority at home.
“My father really introduced us to the world,” Dhalac said, “in reading books and telling us stories about the world and making sure that we were not stuck only in what’s happening in our country, in Somalia, but also telling us there’s a broader world out there. We were really groomed to understand how politics works, how our country was oppressed.”
When her father died in 1989, he knew Somalia was heading for a catastrophic political breakdown, which continues today. He urged family members to make sure his beloved daughter left the country before her life was in danger.
“Girls are seen as the honor of the family in Somalia,” Dhalac said. “My father was a strong believer in girls’ education and empowerment. I think he was a feminist in his own way.”
But getting out of Somalia on the threshold of war wasn’t easy, she said. Embassies were shutting down. Flights were scarce.
Dhalac managed to book a flight to Libya by way of Rome. She planned to skip the connecting flight to Tripoli and plead for asylum in the Italian capital. Seventeen other people had the same idea.
Overwhelmed by the influx of asylum seekers, Italian officials held Dhalac and the others at the airport for six weeks, she said. She was just 21 and terrified.
The Somali community in Rome, including one of Dhalac’s cousins, learned of the detained group and brought food and other necessities to the airport. Some offered to sponsor the newcomers. Eventually, the Italian government released Dhalac into her cousin’s care.
Dhalac’s journey continued through Europe to England, and then to Toronto in 1991, she said. Soon, she was married to a Somali businessman from Atlanta. Their families were close back home. He petitioned to bring Dhalac to the United States.
“We’re a tribal people,” Dhalac said. “Our families had known each other for generations.”
A NEW START
By 1992, Dhalac was living in Georgia and working as a parking garage cashier. With her outgoing personality and advanced education, she began making connections. Within a few months, the hotel’s controller learned that she had an accounting degree and suggested that she apply for an open position in accounts receivable. She got the job.
“I spoke English when I came here, so it was easy to get a work permit and find a job,” Dhalac said. “A lot of doors can open when you can speak English. I cannot thank my father enough for hiring tutors to teach us.”
Dhalac and her husband had three children, now ages 20 to 28. Eventually, she found herself in a rut and wanted more education and a more impactful career. An aunt and uncle who had moved to Maine encouraged her to head north for better educational and career opportunities for her and her children. She visited them in Lewiston in 2004 and found it to be a welcoming place despite some resistance to the growing Somali population.
“I loved it,” Dhalac said. “It was beautiful. I knew Maine was the place for me.”
She and the children moved to Lewiston in 2005; her husband, Abdi Farah, stayed in Georgia to maintain his businesses and visits his family in Maine often, she said.
Dhalac first worked as an interpreter with Catholic Charities Maine, then as a refugee services case manager with the city of Portland. She moved to South Portland in 2008 and started her own interpreting services firm in 2012. She returned to work for the city of Portland in 2014, assisting torture survivors under a federal grant program.
She also went back to school, receiving a master’s degree in community development policy and practice from the University of New Hampshire in 2014, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of New England in 2017.
In between, Dhalac has held a variety of similar paid and volunteer positions with The Opportunity Alliance, Learning Works, Center for Grieving Children, Maine Medical Center, and Portland and South Portland public schools.
In her various roles she has helped clients find a doctor, get an appointment and fill out medical forms. She has helped parents understand how school systems work and how to get involved in their children’s education. She has facilitated a Muslim support group on how to deal with Islamophobia, and she has helped clients find and keep subsidized housing.
‘WHY NOT ME?’
“Somebody needs to do this work, why not me?” Dhalac said.
All of it was ideal experience to become a city councilor and now mayor of South Portland, population 25,532.
Dhalac was elected to the City Council in 2018, in a special election that was held to fill the last two years of a three-year term of a councilor who resigned suddenly. She was re-elected in 2020 to a three-year term that runs through 2023.
“I am so proud and humbled that the voters of South Portland have placed their trust in me. It’s a privilege and a responsibility, and I’m ready to go to work for them,” Dhalac said when she was first elected.
She also admitted to a particular sense of satisfaction having succeeded as an immigrant and a woman of color at a time when hateful political rhetoric is common.
“I’m glad that a little girl who looks like me will see me and think, ‘I can do that, too,’ ” she said.
Dhalac grew familiar with City Hall in 2016, when former District 5 Councilor Brad Fox nominated her for a spot on the Civil Service Commission, which reviews and recommends police and fire department candidates.
Instead, the council voted 5-2 to reappoint Phillip LaRou, whom Fox had appointed nine months earlier to fill an unexpired term on the commission. LaRou, a Portland firefighter who is white, had asked to be reappointed to a full five-year term, but Fox said he wanted to increase diversity on city boards and committees.
Dhalac filed a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Her complaint wasn’t upheld, she said, but the council did go through diversity training, which she said was a “wonderful” result.
Fox was there Monday to see Dhalac become mayor.
“Deqa is the most wonderful, caring person I know and she’s so community oriented,” Fox said before the ceremony. “She is the perfect person to be mayor at this moment in time. We’ve become such a diverse community and she can bring us together.”
Looking ahead to the coming year, Dhalac said her top goals mirror those that the council adopted last year: to prepare for the impacts of the climate crisis; to make diversity, equity and inclusion the new norm; and to focus on fiscal responsibility as a critical aspect of future opportunities.
She opened her inaugural speech as mayor on Monday by giving thanks to the Wabanaki people on whose land South Portland is located, and to the employees in the public works, police, fire and other municipal departments who keep the city running and safe.
Dhalac said the council will continue to promote the city’s One Climate Future plan in partnership with neighboring Portland and support the work of the new South Portland Climate Action Network, a nonprofit established to help implement the plan.
‘WE ALSO NEED TO UPLIFT OUR POLICE’
Other council priorities include continuing to support the city’s Human Rights Commission, which the council established in 2020 amid the Black Lives Matter movement; ongoing training of city employees in bias awareness and cultural competency; and diversifying municipal committee appointments and hiring practices to include more women and people of color.
“We also need to uplift our police department,” Dhalac said. “We should be working together.”
The council also will continue to address the lack of affordable housing and homelessness in the city, including several hotels that are being used to provide emergency shelter.
“We have young families that cannot afford to live in South Portland,” Dhalac said.
On a personal level, Dhalac said she will continue to encourage new Americans to vote, especially in local elections, because many immigrants are unaware of the power they have to bring change to their public schools and municipal governments.
She also will continue to reach out and connect with people of all backgrounds, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation or social status. That’s why she deflects scrutiny when she stops to chat with panhandlers, or posts photos of herself at a Gay Pride event, or wishes Jewish friends Happy Hanukkah.
“It is a human thing to connect with people,” Dhalac said. “In the Quran it says to love thy neighbor. I believe God will judge whoever does harm to others, but it is not my job to judge. How are you going to build a community if you don’t include everybody?”
Especially if that’s the future your mother invoked for you.